Mesa Verde Cliff Palace, the largest and most famous cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde National Park, has over 150 individual rooms and more than 20 kivas (rooms for religious rituals). Crafted of sandstone, wooden beams and mortar, Mesa Verde Cliff Palace has been remarkably well preserved from the elements for the past 700 years.
A visit to Mesa Verde Cliff Palace is included in the Classic Pueblo Tour and the 700 Years Tour. Tickets to the National Park Service one-hour Cliff Palace Tour may be purchased at the Mesa Verde National Park Visitor and Research Center prior to entering the park.
Cliff Palace Overview:
Take a look at the alcove in which Mesa Verde Cliff Palace is built. The rock you see is Cliffhouse sandstone, geologically deposited during the Cretaceous Period some 78 million years ago. Since sandstone is a very porous material, moisture seeps right down through it. Beneath the layer of sandstone, however, is a layer of shale through which the moisture cannot penetrate. In the winter months, when the moisture freezes and expands, chunks of sandstone are cracked and loosened. Later these pieces collapse, forming alcoves such as the one here.
The majority of alcoves within Mesa Verde National Park are small crevices or ledges able to accommodate only a few small rooms. Very few are large enough to house a dwelling the size of Mesa Verde Cliff Palace. Recent studies reveal that Mesa Verde Cliff Palace contained 150 rooms and 23 kivas and had a population of approximately 100 people. Out of the nearly 600 cliff dwellings concentrated within the boundaries of the park, 75% contain only 1-5 rooms each, and many are single room storage units. When you visit Mesa Verde Cliff Palace you will enter an exceptionally large dwelling which may have had special significance to the original occupants. It is thought that Mesa Verde Cliff Palace was a social, administrative site with high ceremonial usage.
Many visitors look at the size of the doorways in Mesa Verde Cliff Palace and other cliff dwellings and wonder about the size of the people who once lived here. An average man was about 5'4" to 5'5" (163cm) tall, while an average woman was 5' to 5'1" (152cm). If you compare them with European people of the same time period, they would have been about the same size. Compared with today, the Ancestral Puebloan's average life span was relatively short, due, in part, to the high infant mortality rate. Most people lived an average of 32-34 years, however some people did live into their 50s and 60s. Approximately 50% of the children died before they reached the age of five.
Sandstone, mortar and wooden beams were the three primary construction materials for the cliff dwellings. The Ancestral Puebloans shaped each sandstone block using harder stones collected from nearby river beds. The mortar between the blocks is a mixture of local soil, water and ash. Fitted in the mortar are tiny pieces of stone called "chinking." Chinking stones filled the gaps within the mortar and added structural stability to the walls. Over the surface of many walls, the people decorated with earthen plasters of pink, brown, red, yellow, or white -- the first things to erode with time.